Never doubt that thoughtful minds can change the world; they are the only things that ever do. Margaret Mead is thought to have said something like that, which chimes with Keynes, who wrote that the self-styled practical men running the world were unwittingly guided by forgotten academic scribblers. For Victor Hugo, meanwhile, the one thing stronger than all the armies in the world was “an idea whose time had come.”
These reflections on the power of thought are worth unearthing because these are anti-intellectual times—and not only because of the proud ignoramus in the White House. No: the roots of current disdain for educated, “liberal elites” go much deeper, tracing back to well before the financial crisis and populist backlash.
The seeds were planted in the 1970s by the New Right’s Irving Kristol, who saw reactionary potential in rallying mass opposition to the “new class” of university graduates, who had the sort of fancy ideas that would go down badly with those Nigel Farage defines as “real people.” Over the decades since, Rupert Murdoch and the popular press, preferred reflex reactions to rationality, and called them “common sense.” They have derided intellectuals, who rarely rank among the economic elite, as a class apart in ivory towers. Today we have reached the Trumpian point where, for perhaps the first time in free societies since the French Revolution, reason has to be defended as a value.
This context makes it timely to revive the Prospect tradition of identifying the world’s leading thinkers. The urge to rank and measure might itself seem anti-intellectual—more Top Trumps than top scholarship. But the aim is not to chase a chimera still less to deliver the results of some supposedly objective IQ test. Rather it is simply to honour the minds engaging most fruitfully with the questions of the moment.
We go into it aware that any such list will say as much about the people doing the listing as the names that make the grade; indeed, you—the readers—will reveal something about yourselves if and when you vote for the very top thinkers in our online poll.